Living the new normal, from a long-delayed commencement to an Amtrak trip

Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Previously published at GBH News.

We are now 21 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m writing this on the Amtrak to New Haven, a remarkably normal activity that conjures up images of life as we once knew it.

Except that I paid extra for a business-class ticket so I wouldn’t be too near anyone else. Except that I put my cloth mask away and switched to an industrial-strength N95 as soon as I took my seat. Except that I’ve received two doses of a COVID vaccine along with a booster, and I’m still wondering when, if ever, this will all come to an end.

This past Saturday I took part in a ritual at Northeastern University that simultaneously underscored the hope and the sense of danger we’re all experiencing. Some 2,500 members of the Class of 2020 gathered in Matthews Arena to celebrate the commencement that had been canceled at the height of the pandemic. It was held in two shifts, morning and afternoon, and masks were mandatory. It was a wonderful, festive moment.

Even so, it was impossible not to notice that a few of the grads refused to wear masks. And it was hard not to wonder what the effect would be of all those people briefly removing their masks so they could get their pictures taken. I’m triply vaxxed and pretty healthy, but I’m also 65. And though I’m reasonably confident that I wouldn’t get too sick if I were infected, I don’t want to spread it to anyone else.

As we all know, once again we’re right on the cusp. The Delta variant, which wreaked such havoc on the optimism we all felt after the first vaccines became available, had been on the wane in recent months. But now it seems to be rising once again — even in Massachusetts, where the vaccination rate is among the highest in the country.

“These state trends are disconcerting, but not surprising, as national declines in COVID cases have stalled in recent weeks,” Harvard public health professor Howard Koh told The Boston Globe. “We need to be extra-vigilant and careful as the winter season approaches. We must push the state’s vaccination rates even higher, resist suggestions to drop mask requirements too early, and eliminate disparities.”

Yet the urge to move in the opposite direction is overwhelming. Even as COVID cases were ticking up, the city of Medford, where I live, was lifting its indoor mask mandate — except, incongruously enough, in city-owned buildings.

Maybe returning to our normal lives and going maskless when it makes sense (i.e., not in an arena packed with graduates and their families) is what we all ought to be doing. David Leonhardt of The New York Times, whose morning newsletter has been a source of calm for many of us, said as much last Friday. His take, grounded in evidence and statistics, is that those of us who are fully vaccinated and healthy are in no more danger of becoming seriously ill from COVID than we are from the flu. And of course, we take few precautions to avoid getting the flu except for annual vaccines, and many of us don’t even bother with those.

“The bottom line is that COVID now presents the sort of risk to most vaccinated people that we unthinkingly accept in other parts of life,” Leonhard wrote. “And there is not going to be a day when we wake up to headlines proclaiming that COVID is defeated. In many ways, the future of the virus has arrived.”

Consider the example of Alexis Madrigal, who wrote in The Atlantic about his experience with a breakthrough infection despite being young, physically fit and fully vaxxed. He attended a friend’s wedding in New Orleans at which all the other guests had been vaccinated, too. He got COVID. But he didn’t get all that sick. The worst part was how his illness affected those around him.

“My kids had to come out of school and isolate with my wife,” he wrote. “A raft of tests had to be taken by everyone I’d had even limited contact with. (I was one of at least a dozen people at the wedding who got sick.) I had been with several older people, including my mother-in-law. For my wife and children, the tests went on for days and days, each one bringing a prospective new disaster and 10 to 14 more days of life disruption or worse.”

No, no fun. But, as he acknowledged, the vaccines worked. As Madrigal put it: “Maybe we’re in this space for another year or two or three. One way to put the question of endemicity is: When do we start treating COVID like other respiratory illnesses?”

The pandemic was especially hard on education. Students from kindergarten through college were affected, and instructors have had to juggle Zoom classes, hybrid learning, what to do when students test positive and a number of other challenges they couldn’t haven’t have imagined confronting before March 2020.

But the classroom, too, is returning to some semblance of normal. I’m on sabbatical this year, working on another book, but my colleagues tell me they’ve been having a reasonably upbeat semester. Vaccines are required. Everyone is masked and tested regularly. This is about as good as it’s going to get, at least for another year or so.

“Every graduating class — like every graduate — is tested,” Northeastern president Joseph Aoun said at Saturday’s commencement. “But your class faced the ultimate test: A global cataclysm that literally cut your final semester short. The scale and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes, yet you persevered. You overcame every challenge, every hardship. Class of 2020, I am in awe of what you have achieved.”

I’m in awe, too. And I’m glad that my students — my former students — were able to come back to campus and be recognized for what they accomplished during their time at Northeastern, especially during those awful last few months. Meanwhile, it’s onward — to New Haven, to the future and to whatever this miserable pandemic has in store for us next.